Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I, Saac

Given the extent to which I utterly loathe driving, I am intrigued by the idea of self-driving cars such as those being tested by Google, although if it’s Google, I can only imagine that any drive will thoroughly inundate the rider with ads which may end up being even more unpleasant than driving. (Actually, I’d rather walk or take public transport but, this being the U.S., that’s not an option in most places.)
The New Yorker, though, poses some interesting questions vis-à-vis self-driving cars and the potentially Robot Holocaust-like technology underlying it all.
Eventually (though not yet) automated vehicles will be able to drive better, and more safely than you can; no drinking, no distraction, better reflexes, and better awareness (via networking) of other vehicles. Within two or three decades the difference between automated driving and human driving will be so great you may not be legally allowed to drive your own car...
Hope springs eternal! But, perhaps more importantly, we may be ushering in
the era in which it will no longer be optional for machines to have ethical systems. Your car is speeding along a bridge at fifty miles per hour when errant school bus carrying forty innocent children crosses its path. Should your car swerve, possibly risking the life of its owner (you), in order to save the children, or keep going, putting all forty kids at risk? If the decision must be made in milliseconds, the computer will have to make the call.
Now, suppose there was no such thing as a hypothetical situation...
But if we have reached this point, why would the school bus be errant in the first place? (Yeah, I know, think about MS Windows and then extrapolate that to a vehicle’s OS; “You’re about to die in a fiery crash. But there are unused icons on your desktop. Would you like you like to fix them?”) And in the second place, I’ve seen some viral videos and bits of the movie Bully, so I’m not all that convinced of the innocence of school kids, so I say off the bridge with ’em. (Oh, I’m kidding. Sort of....Um, can we pick which of the forty?)
There are, of course, Isaac Asimov’s classic Three Laws of Robotics:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second laws.
And, it being Asimov, 4. All robots must sport gigantic mutton-chop sideburns.
Asimov’s short story collection I, Robot demonstrated pretty effectively just how problematic those laws could be. And think about how you might define terms like “injure,” “inaction,” “harm,” “protection.” Norman, coordinate! (Star Trek’s “I, Mudd” episode also illustrated these conundra, albeit in very silly ways, and Futurama’s “I, Roommate” in more intentionally silly ways.)
Still, given that after all these millennia we still have not figured out how to get humans to act ethically and morally, so I suppose it’s no surprise that it will be challenge to get our machines to behave as such. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Pop Goes the Culture

It was around 1999 or 2000 that I began to lose complete track of pop culture. It was the popularity and subsequent ubiquity of illiterate— er, I mean, reality—TV that did it; when Survivor was a hit and there was no avoiding the repellent, semi-nude photos of the creep who won the first series, that was perhaps the first brick in the wall that went up between me and media culture. Big Brother was the second. The utterly vile and loathsome Temptation Island was a ton of bricks all by itself (not that I watched any of these; the promos were enough to make me want to pluck out my eyes—“Out, vile jelly!”). A few years later, when a show pitted a team of midgets against an elephant to pull a jet, the entire medium jumped the shark, as it were, and the rest of the wall went up. 
Movies? Well, at least I write and update the Saratoga Film Forum’s newsletters and Web site, so I have a passing familiarity with at least some current movies, namely the good ones. (I saw Safety Not Guaranteed a few weeks ago; I liked it.) As for what plays at the malls and multiplexes...I haven’t a clue. There was something about a foul-mouthed teddy bear (yeah, sign me up for that), and a series of movies about hangovers, if my peripheral vision caught the Web ads correctly. I think about five years ago I was dragged to a Will Ferrell movie (something about ice skating) and again prayed for retinal detachment (I really can’t stand Will Ferrell).
I was talking with someone recently about James Bond (apparently there is a new one out) and even I was shocked to realize that the last Bond movie I saw—at all, let alone in the theater—was Licence to Kill. And, yes, that came out in 1989. Tempus fugit. (In my own defense, I thought they went downhill after Sean Connery quit, and gee our old LaSalle ran great.)*
And while I have been perfectly happy to remain ignorant of it all (or most of it; a few shows—not reality ones—have filtered into my little bubble, like Parks and Recreation and, um, others, I suspect), I am discovering that there is a downside: my ignorance of pop culture is starting to impede my ability to do crossword puzzles, as more puzzles are cluing actors, actresses, shows, and movies I have never even heard of. It is starting to become like doing those old Margaret Farrar- and Will Weng-era NYT puzzles from the 1960s and early 70s that included then-current-but-now-long-forgotten names.
It’s getting serious. I may have to subscribe to Entertainment Weekly strictly—and ironically—for educational purposes. 

*It could also be age-related. It’s my belief that the definition of middle age is the point at which you can look through an issue of People magazine at the dentist’s office and fail to identify more than 50% of the celebrities in it.

UPDATE: I rest my case. They remade Red Dawn?! For the love of all that’s holy, why?

I Am Legend

First of all, do you know how many times you would have to kill me to get me into a Walmart...well, ever, but especially today (so-called Black Friday)? Or, for that matter, into any shopping mall? It’s not just that a) I actively dislike shopping in general, b) can’t abide crowds of feral, sociopathic shoppers or the even more sociopathic traffic, or c) my approach to Christmas shopping gets more and more Scrooge-like every year, but, as per this article in The Atlantic, the whole so-called Black Friday thing pretty much a scam:

It's in the stores' interest to make you think prices will go up after Black Friday. But for many items, they probably won't. Instead, as inventory piles up, prices will stay low or go lower in early December. Still, it's better for the economy if more customers buy into the Black Friday hype and behave as though we're in a mini-inflationary cycle where prices on all goods are about to jump. The alternative -- everybody sits on their hands and waits until December 26 to shop for gifts -- isn't particularly good for anybody. Plus, predicting exactly when prices on your single favorite item will be lowest is like trying to buy a plane ticket at its single lowest price. Even our smartest algorithms struggle to do it.

Bargain-hunting has never been my cup of tea—even when buying tea—and when it comes to searching for deals and steals, I’m far less alpha male and more Omega Man. So I’m perfectly happy to sit on my hands until December 26th, if ever.

I say “so-called” Black Friday because, as per Kevin Drum on his Mother Jones blog, the phrase as used today is a fairly new one, and its origins (1950s or 60s in Philadelphia) originally had bad connotations (it still does, as far as I’m concerned):

the gigantic Army-Navy-post-Thanksgiving day crowds and traffic jams, which both retail workers and police officers dreaded. The retail industry originally loathed the term...

Speaking of bad things, so-called Black Friday, and Philadelphia, Syracuse is at the moment losing to Temple... Oy.

And the less said about the unfortunate term “Cyber Monday” the better.

Now, whether the whole camping out and going to shops at 3 in the morning thing becomes some sort of cultural tradition...well, there are some shared experiences I don’t have any desire to share. Today is the day to barricade myself in the apartment, indeed like Charlton Heston in Omega Man (or Will Smith in I Am Legend, if you prefer; they’re both based on the Richard Matheson book) and spend the day deleting all the so-called Black Friday spam I am being inundated with. (Amazon alone has clogged my inbox rather dramatically.)

By the way, yesterday’s Saratoga Turkey Trot 5K went vaguely OK; I ran it in an appalling 28:49, down from my record of 25:28 in the Saratoga Palio back on September 16. Sure, I could blame it on the cold (see below), the 3000+ other runners that formed a dense, unbroken mass and made getting up to speed a challenge, and/or the hills of the Skidmore campus, but the fact is that I have not been running a lot lately, focusing instead on CrossFit workouts and strength conditioning. I used to spend a lot of time on the treadmill; not so much lately.

I shall have to make it a point to train for the New Year’s Eve 5K, whose temperature may, it occurs to me, bear a close resemblance to yesterday morning’s:

King for Many More Days

The rereading Stephen King project continues.

Different Seasons (1982) 

A collection of four novellas, three of which have been made into movies (supposedly the fourth is in the works), two of them (“Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body” aka Stand By Me) getting Oscar nods (Apt Pupil got mixed reviews). These stories don’t really have a horror or supernatural component, and are more character studies than anything. The most successful is “The Body,” with four slightly pre-teen friends circa 1960 setting off on a long trek to see a dead body. The relationships between the characters develop over the course of the journey, and the reaction isn’t what they anticipated. King doesn’t always get credit for his characters, as the scare factor is usually what everyone focuses on, but he really nails the mindset of that age extremely well. “Apt Pupil,” about a teenager’s unhealthy obsession with a former Nazi—and the hold they develop over each other—doesn’t quite do it for me; I can see why Dussander (the Nazi) would be afraid of Todd (the kid) blowing his cover, but why would the kid be afraid of Dussander threatening to reveal that Todd never turned him in? And why do they both start randomly killing winos? (A little is made of the fact that Dussander never speaks Todd’s name. The reason is not given in the story, and it was only a little bit later that I realized that Tod is the German word for death.

The “twist” ending to “Rita Hayworth,” which you can kind of see coming (even given that I read these stories back in the early 1980s), does strain credulity just a tad, but it’s still a good story.

“The Breathing Method” was the only one of the quartet that I had no recollection of (and was not made into a movie...yet) and the tone and characters are a 180 degrees from “The Body” (middle-aged New Yorker listening to a story by an elderly doctor about a patient he had in the 1930s). The “twist” ending to this twice-told tale make me wonder how on Earth I had forgotten it, as it is quite bizarre. Oddly, it works.

Anyway, this is a pretty strong collection of non-horror stories that are just as compelling as the creepy stories.

Grade: A- 

Christine (1983)

I was really girding my loins for this one, thinking (perhaps recollecting) that it was King almost literally jumping the shark. And yet, it turned out that I actually rather liked it. In a way, it's kind of like The Shining on wheels in that (well, like a lot of horror) it is about forces of evil tapping into an individual’s inner demons. In the case of Jack Torrance, it was being a short-tempered alcoholic. In the case of Christine’s Arnie Cunningham, it is being a pimply high school misfit. Christine isn’t really about a possessed car; it’s really about high school, and King taps into that mindset as easily as he tapped into the pre-teen mindset in “The Body.” Christine is very much a set of character studies—Arnie Cunningham, his only friend the football player Dennis Guilder, and his would-be girlfriend Leigh.

What I guess doesn’t entirely work—or at least the question I have—is exactly what was possessed. What I mean is, Arnie buys the car from a bitter, perpetually angry old Army vet named Roland LeBay. The car is deteriorating on LeBay’s lawn and he is selling it. Arnie sees it and, as a car aficionado, immediately falls in love with it and wants to restore it. He buys it from LeBay, and the car actually starts restoring itself. Then LeBay suddenly dies, and every time Christine starts driving in by itself—and killing Arnie’s enemies—it turns out she is being driven by the ghost of LeBay. But...what was driving her before LeBay died? Meanwhile, Arnie starts psychologically (and in some ways physically) turning into LeBay. Why, if his ghost is still tooling around in the car? And no mention is made of how the car got evil, or was it that LeBay made it evil? I think it would have worked better if it had been a straightforward Shining-like possession without the added complication of LeBay. There is also a scene in which a character is killed by the car inside his own house; the car crashes into the living room and chases him around and up a staircase. Yeah, that was a bit much (it reminded me of a scene from Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run).

What is also a bit distracting is that the first third of the book is written in the first person by Arnie’s friend Dennis. At about the one-third mark, Dennis is seriously injured in a football game and is confined to the hospital for a few months. The narration then shifts to third-person (in order, it’s obvious, to describe events that there is no way Dennis would be able to witness, even if he wasn’t in hospital), but then at the two-thirds mark, it shifts back to Dennis’ first-person narration. I get why King did this; he wanted the perspective of the teenage character (which works exceedingly well) as well as some vivid descriptions of Christine killing some people. A little “having your cake and eating it, too,” and it only slightly doesn’t work.

That said, I liked it a lot more than I was expecting to.

Grade: B-

Pet Sematary (1983)

From what I recall, this was the last “first run” King novel I read (I had the hardcover) before college and moving on to snootier fare. Like most of the titles in this project thus far, it ended up being better than I recall, even if you can see where it’s going. According to a new introduction written in 2000, this is the one book that even scared its author, to the extent that he held off submitting it to his publisher thinking he had finally gone “too far.”

Plot, in a nutshell: a Midwest doctor, his wife, and two kids move to rural Maine, in a house alongside a busy state highway that is doom to pets. Behind their house is the local “pet sematary” where generations of spelling-challenged kids buried their pets, many of which had been claimed by speeding traffic on the road. (The set-up is virtually identical to King’s own situation when he got a teaching gig at the University of Maine.) However, just beyond the pet cemetery is an old Micmac burial ground that, like most Indian burial grounds, has some spooky local lore attached to it. When the family’s cat is run down on the road and killed, Louis (our hero) tests the local legend by burying it in the Indian burial ground...and the cat comes back, decidedly changed (the bits with the cat are the creepiest in the book). So, when Louis’s young son is killed on the road, he decides to see what would happen if...

The book references the classic short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” of which it is a more modern iteration. The book is also a meditation on the extent to which “dead is better,” in that there is an inherent danger in just about everyone’s fantasy of being the deceased back rather than remembering them as they were in life. King succeeds where other horror writers fail in that it’s not always about the scare factor; there are larger themes in these books for those who care to look for them—although they’re usually pretty obvious.

The interesting thing about King is that he identifies his characters’ lapses in logic; we know that Louis is behaving irrationally when he digs up his son’s body and lugs it to the Indian graveyard; he knows he is, as well, but he manages to rationalize it to himself...and to the reader. It actually kind of works. What I kind of throw a flag on is the generic use of anything Native American to have all sorts of supernatural effects. It was a convenient trope in old horror (for example, Poltergeist), but seems a bit hokey these days.

I did not see the movie version, but did enjoy The Ramones’ theme song. King was/is a big Ramones fan, and the refrain “Hey ho, let’s go” (from “Blitzkrieg Bop”) recurs throughout the book. At one point Louis checks into a motel under the name Dee Dee Ramone.

Grade: A-

Cycle of the Werewolf (1983)

I am not entirely certain what to make of this one. It’s basically a short story typeset so that it comes out to 120 pages, interspersed with color and black-and-white illustrations, some of which should be captioned “spoiler alert.” It is divided into 12 chapters (corresponding to the months of the year) and werewolf attacks that occur during each month’s full moon (King admits in an afterword that he played a but loose with the lunar cycle so as to have the full moon coincide with various holidays; like that’s the biggest problem...).

It’s an interesting narrative experiment but we never get all that invested in the town or the characters (as opposed to, say, ’Salem’s Lot) to really care all that much and when we find out who the werewolf is (given away in one of the illustrations, actually) we’re not all that surprised, since we had only met the character fleetingly.

This was apparently made into the movie Silver Bullet (starring Corey Haim), which got decidedly mixed reviews (perhaps explained by the phrase “starring Corey Haim”).

Anyway, a nice quick read but not too thrilling.

Grade: C

Up next is a collaboration with Peter Straub called The Talisman, which is a big, thick cube of a book, so that’ll take a while. Then there is the Richard Bachman weight-loss plan, another collection of short stories, and...It.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Certain Songs Part XVII: With Surgical Focus

To finish out the bottom 52, this installment of my favorite 152 records of all time will comprise four titles, taking us from 104 to 101.

The story so far:

Part I (150–152) here.
Part II (147–149) here.
Part III (144–146) here.
Part IV (141–143) here.
Part V (138–140) here.
Part VI (135–137) here.
Part VII (132–134) here.
Part VIII (129–131) here.
Part IX (126–128) here.
Part X (123–125)here
Part XI (120–122)here
Part XII (117–119)here
Part XIII: (114–116) here.
Part XIV (111–113) here.
Part XV (108–110) here.
Part XVI (105–107) here.

The Kinks
Face to Face

Although I was a very big fan of the mid-80s Kinks (see later in this list), it took a while before I discovered their back discography; it was largely due to the reissue of definitive remasters of their first seven Pye Records albums (Velvel also contemporaneously released remasters of the 1970s and 80s RCA and Arista albums) in the late 1990s. But one of those early great albums is their fourth, Face to Face, where Ray Davies first solidified his art and storytelling style, hinted at in earlier singles like “A Well-Respected Man” and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.” At first, it sounds like the old Kinks (“Party Line”), even if the lyrics concern a strange voice calling the narrator on the titular public phone (party lines vanished by the end of the 60s):
I’m on a party line,
Wonderin’ all the time,
Who’s on the other end
Is she big, is she small?
Is she a she at all?
Who’s on my party line?
By track 2, a plea for sister Rosie to return from Australia, where she had emigrated, a new sound was emerging. “Too Much On My Mind” deals with Davies’ perennial topic of insomnia. “Session Man” pays tribute to Nicky Hopkins who played keyboards for just about everyone. “House in the Country” deals with a rich pratt who could very well turn up a few songs later having to sell his the house in “Most Exclusive Residence for Sale.”
He don’t need no sedatives to ease his troubled mind.
At work he is invariably unpleasant and unkind.
Why should he care if he is hated in his home,
’Cause he’s got a house in the country,
And a big sports car.
“Holiday in Waikiki” is not exactly happy, fun time, it being massively commercialized: “Even the grass skirts are PVC” and “a genuine Hawaiian ukulele cost me 30 guineas.” The single was “Sunny Afternoon,” a quintessential late-60s Davies composition that still gets massive applause today:
The tax man’s taken all my dough,
And left me in my stately home,
Lazing on a sunny afternoon.
And I can’t sail my yacht,
He’s taken everything I’ve got,
All I’ve got’s this sunny afternoon.
The B side “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” has become quite rightly a classic in its own right.

“Rainy Day In June” and “Fancy” added different shades to the typical British Invasion sound, the latter a bit more Eastern sounding. The cover art could not have been less representative of the music.

The next Kinks album was Something Else, which it assuredly was. See later in this list.

Guided by Voices
Do the Collapse

In summer 1999 I was in Tower Records in Torrance, CA, and for whatever reason was impelled to pick up this record (I can’t recall if I had read a review of it or had heard about previous GbV records and took the plunge with this one). Anyway, it is the most atypical of all GbV’s massive discography, in that it is very slickly recorded and produced (by Ric Ocasek). It divides GbV fans to this day, and stands in stark contrast to the lo-fi recordings that endeared them to their fans. At the time, I was unaware of this history, and just loved the songs. From the opening “Teenage FBI,” there is none of the usual GbV filler; all the tracks are fleshed out (well, relatively speaking) and sound great. Yeah, sure, maybe too slick, but tell me “Surgical Focus” isn’t a classic. And even if “Mushroom Art” is lyrically inscrutable (like most of songwriter Robert Pollard’s songs), damn if it doesn’t cook. The bandmembers had been switched up again, but a great find—a holdover from the previous album—was lead guitarist Doug Gillard, who makes mincemeat out of tracks like “Zoo Pie,” “In Stitches,” and “Much Better Mr. Buckles.” They even had something like a radio hit with “Hold On Hope”:
Invitation to the last dance
Then it's time to leave
That's the price we pay
When we deceive
One another animal mother
She opens up for free
Everybody’s got a hold on hope
It’s the last thing that's holding me
And one can’t help singing along with the chorus to “Liquid Indian.”

I spent most of the rest of 1999 digging this record and, yes, as I uncovered their past discography it kind of paled in some ways, but listened to objectively, is a great pop-rock album.

The next two albums sought to find a middle ground between this and past records—and I thought Universal Truths and Cycles (“Everywhere With Helicopter” being the greatest song ever) was the most successful. Still, the record does conjure up a brief, somewhat happy period in Southern California. This was taped and on the car tape deck for a long time (this was before iPods; my car at the time didn’t even have a CD player).

The Smiths
The Smiths

Meat is Murder (see later in this list) was the record that got me into the quintessential 1980s college band, and of the four original studio albums, only Strangeways, Here We Come does not make this list. This is a great debut, but has some things that annoy (such as Morrissey’s falsetto, which he’d quickly ditch). Opening “Reel Around the Fountain” is a sublime love song (I only recently learned that the line “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice” was nicked from Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey; Morrissey’s appreciation for Delaney would eventually lead to a photo of the playwright as the “cover star” for the singles collection Louder Than Bombs). (The BBC version on Hatful of Hollow is actually better.) “Miserable Lie” starts off great—gentle and calm before turning into punk thrash and decidedly bitter lyrics, directed both at protagonist and antagonist (“you have destroyed my flower-like life, not once but twice,” “I look at yours, you laugh at mine and ‘love’ is just a miserable lie”). The falsetto wailing detracts a bit. I have it on good authority that the studio version doesn’t come close to doing the justice to the song as live versions. “Pretty Girls Make Graves”—title from Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums—chronicles the narrator’s impotence when propositioned by a somewhat aggressive female suitor. “I could have been wild and I could have been free/But nature played this trick on me.” “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” has the distinction of being the first song Morrissey and Marr wrote together.

“This Charming Man” was the classic single (the line “a jumped up pantry boy who never knew his place” was nicked from Michael Caine in Sleuth). The first great Smiths song. The other (which was actually the first Smiths single) is “Hand in Glove.” “What Difference Does It Make?” is vague enough that it could be about any embarrassing detail one might have, which us what makes it timeless. It’s hard to imagine what a shot in the arm this record was in 1984 (with REM’s 1983 debut Murmur) which brought energetic guitar rock back amid a sea of 1980s synthesizer sludge (some of which I liked). For more from The Smiths, see later in this list.

Richard and Linda Thompson
Shoot Out the Lights

Richard Thompson was always something of a cult figure, a critical favorite (and amazing guitar player) who never quite hit the mainstream. In the 1970s, he and his then-wife Linda recorded a number of hit-or-miss records before culminating in their last album together (and as a married couple), Shoot Out the Lights, often a fixture on many critics’ best-of lists. The songs alternate between Linda- and Richard-sung, and I suppose I prefer the latter, simply because I think they’re more interesting songs (in general; Richard wrote all the songs). Most of the songs detail doomed relationships—ironic, in a way, as the Thompsons were fine when they wrote and recorded the album; it was only afterward that they split. “Don’t Renege on Our Love” kicks the basic theme off from track one: “When my heart breaks/It breaks like the weather/If you leave me now/It’ll thunder forever.” The highlight is the Richard-sung “A Man in Need,” detailing the guy who did indeed renege on someone’s love. It rightly opened the mid-1990s 3-disc compilation Watching the Dark (the title of which references “Shoot Out the Lights”). I do love “Backstreet Slide,” but I think a slightly better version appears on Watching the Dark.

In the gorgeous Linda-sung “Walking on a Wire,” the narrator blames herself for any marital discord: “I wish I could please you tonight/But my medicine just won’t come right/I’m walking on a wire...and I’m falling.” Richard’s mournful guitar punctuates her laments. “Wall of Death” (another cheery title!) sums up the appeal for some of extreme amusement park rides: “You can waste your time on the other rides/But this is the nearest to being alive.” If there is a song here that seems slightly out of place (and this wasn’t intended as a concept album), it’s the title track, inspired by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. It’s a great, powerful just seems to stick out here. But who am I to complain?
The spare production suits the material beautifully; given this was 1982, there could have been all kinds of attempts to tart it up for mainstream commercial appeal. Thompson’s subsequent solo albums (which continue to this day) have been spotty, but have evinced pockets of brilliance (Amnesia, Rumour and Sigh, or Mock Tudor should have appeared on this list somewhere).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Certain Songs Part XVI: Turn Down the Gravity

And the countdown relentlessly continues...

The Church
Gold Afternoon Fix

This is another case where this is probably not the band’s best album (and, actually, they have since disowned it—opening it with the line “Here’s one straight from the factory” was probably a clue), but it made a great impression on me at the time. It does have one of their great album openers (“Pharaoh”) and “hit single” (“Metropolis,” which was played on alternative radio a bit) but the track that does it for me is the sci-fi punfest “Terra Nova Cain” (“Turn down the gravity/This is all too heavy/...We used to float around her weightless bedroom/That drove me right up the wall”). “I’ll show you how the ancients once traveled/They used to call this a Chevy...” “She was a transdimensional speeder!”

“Essence” and “You’re Still Beautiful” are other classics, although most songs are really good. “Russian Autumn Heart” is a great Marty Willson-Piper track, while “Transient” is a good Peter Koppes song. Lines like “Wondering if leaves will fall in May” remind that they are Australian. The record has been described as “cold” and kind of soulless, but I do not agree. Despite band animosity, this was the best Church record perhaps until Hologram of Baal in 1998. Funny, their following album, Priest=Aura, is believed to be their magnum opus, but I never really cared for it.

Oranges and Lemons

It was common, back in the days of one’s teenage days, to treat a favorite band’s past discography with reverence, and a new release as somehow not living up to the back catalogue. I think XTC’s Oranges and Lemons was the first time that that was not the case, and I played it endlessly back in 1989.

1986’s Skylarking gave them an unexpected and well-deserved hit in “Dear God” (which wasn’t even on the album, at least at first), so the pressure was on for a follow-up. Having producer Paul Fox forced on them (Fox would eventually earn a reputation for being the guy who would take quirky alternative bands, strip away everything that made them unique, and try to make them Top 40 bands, and he’d go on to ruin albums by Robyn Hitchcock, They Might Be Giants, and The Sugar Cubes) was not pleasant, but even he couldn’t destroy a great set of songs from both Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. Drummer Pat Mastelloltto was a session drummer who had recently played with Mr. Mister and would eventually join the ever-changing lineup of King Crimson.

“Mayor of Simpleton,” a kind of update of Sam Cooke’s “Don’t Know Much About History,” was the single and I don’t know how high it got, but it was not high enough. “King for a Day” was Colin’s big hit single and it also didn’t get high enough. Some of it sounds a bit too late-80s, but not in a bad way. “One of the Millions” is one of Colin’s standouts (“I got so much to say but I’m afraid it’ll come out wrong/I’m not into that 80s thing where you look after #1/But I won’t rock the boat...”). As I get older, the more I appreciate “Cynical Days” (as in “Help me get through these cynical days”). “Across the Antheap” is perhaps the most raucous track they have ever done. The record kind loses steam toward the end (“Pink Thing” is a single entendre about Andy’s new son that I imagine he’s probably deeply embarrassed about by now), but it really was XTC’s last real hurrah. 1993’s Nonsuch was very spotty, and then their record company kept them in contract/recording limbo for most of the 1990s. Much more from XTC later in this list.


I’ll admit right now, this is the only U2 album in this list. I got into U2 in sort of a big way when War came out in 1983, and quickly found their debut album Boy to be my favorite. Despite all they have achieved since, I never really got into them again. But I still find Boy to be an exceptional record. I had it on vinyl (it’s the only U2 album I have on CD) and played it rather a lot in the early 80s. It really doesn’t get better than “I Will Follow.” I did always like “An Cat Dubh,” and the way it segues into “Into the Heart.” “Out of Control” was/is a wonderful track. I know I should like Joshua Tree (I saw them live in Syracuse on that tour), but the record never really did anything for me. I did love War when it came out, but never really was engaged with them after that.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Certain Songs Part XV: Brown Shoes Don’t Make It

The countdown continues...

Jethro Tull
The Broadsword and the Beast

No, not the best Tull album, but it was the one that introduced me to them, as “Fallen On Hard Times” got some radio play at the time, and I really liked it (still seems woefully apt these days). Around this time, a Tull concert appeared on The King Biscuit Flour Hour, which introduced me to much of their back discography. (Naturally I had heard “Aqualung” and a few of the other classic rock hits on the radio.) Also at this time, an album-by-album documentary on the group was featured on the radio, which gave me a list of records to buy...

I thought—and in retrospect, still think—Broadsword was the best mix of 80s-era synthesizers and other fiddly bits of technology, and their classic, acoustic folk sound, especially coming after the very disappointing A. Martin Barre remained on guitar, as ever, and Dave Pegg remained on bass from A, but those were the only two members retained for Broadsword. Peter Vettese was a keyboard whiz who joined and would have a profound influence on the next couple of records and on Ian Anderson (who would record his first solo record, the all-synth Walk Into Light, with Vettese), and Vettese was one of the rare few to get a co-composition credit on a Jethro Tull record.

Side one, to me, is flawless, with strong opener “Beastie,” followed by “The Clasp,” “Fallen On Hard Times,” “Flying Colours,” and “Slow Marching Band.” Side two flags in places (“Seal Driver,” “Watching You, Watching Me”) but side two opener “Broadsword” is as strong as anything they had done in recent years. One complaint about Broadsword is the drumming; coming after longtime skinsman Barrie(more) Barlow, former Cat Stevens drummer Gerry Conway was a bit too restrained. Unfortunately, he was replaced by a Linn drum machine on the next record, 1984’s Under Wraps, which makes what would be an otherwise not-bad record sound incredibly dated. In the liner notes to the ~2000 reissue, Anderson points out that the Broadsword tour—done in the tradition of over-the-top production spectacle shows of the 1970s—was the last of its kind, with no more costumes, elaborate stage sets, or “full production theatrical tour of Spinal Tap absurdity....Errol Flynn with tights and a flute couldn’t have looked sillier.” The end of an era...perhaps, although it has not stopped Roger Waters.

Vocal cord issues led Anderson to withdraw for a few years and tend to his aquaculture business (he ran salmon farms in the UK), before coming back—and sounding like Mark Knopfler—in 1987 with a return to a classic heavy rock sound of Crest of a Knave. Tull toured relentlessly and in various incarnations throughout the 90s and the records released were not terrible (1995’s Roots to Branches was actually pretty good), and in 2012 Anderson released, under his own name, a sequel to 1972’s prog rock opus Thick as a Brick (see later in this list). Much more from Tull later in this list.

The Mothers of Invention
Absolutely Free 1967

Just the second Zappa album, Absolutely Free was an early perfect combination of social commentary (“Plastic People,” “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”), absurdity (“Call Any Vegetable”), and virtuosic guitar soloing (“Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin”). Side One comprises a couple of suites (“The Duke of Prunes” and “Call Any Vegetable”) while side two careens wildly from high school conformity to adulthood conformity. One line from “Brown Shoes Don't Make It” always stuck with me: “be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn’t care.” Indeed. The “really exciting part” where they try to be The Supremes at the end of “The Duke Regains His Chops” is pretty funny. “Uncle Bernie’s Farm” pokes fun at violent Christmas toys.

Musically, Absolutely Free is all over the map (in a good way), from the opening channeling of “Louie, Louie” (a frequent element of Zappa’s “conceptual continuity”), to Stravinsky references, to doo-wop, to proto-progressive rock, to the music hall of “Brown Shoes...” This album still holds up remarkably well 45 years (oy) later.

Spock’s Beard
The Kindness of Strangers

I first heard neo-progressive band Spock’s Beard in 2003 thanks to the Internet radio station Aural Moon, which also introduced me to The Flower Kings (see earlier in this list) and IQ (see later in this list). Of the six albums they had at the time, I picked this one to give them a chance and fell in love with it. (Upon acquiring the rest of their discography, I’d perhaps cite V as their best but, as I have said often in this list, context is everything.)

“The Good Don’t Last” hooked me in, but, lyrically, isn’t as good as it could have been in terms of criticizing mainstream pop culture. That’s the thing with original songwriter Neal Morse; you were always with him, even if the words were a bit clumsy. The same with his vocals; he’s not a great singer, but had a great “personality” that came through. You didn’t know what had been lost until he left the band. Still, the sentiments of the songs are what get through, and the music is awesome. “We could have made anything we wanted to make/So we made Wheel of Fortune and all the popular songs/We made a land where crap is king and the good don’t last too long.” Indeed.

“Into the Mouth of Madness” is based on a crazy bit of a riff, while “Cakewalk on Easy Street” is a “horror of old age” song (“Wednesday/It’s suppository time again...Friday, I get my leg back on again...”) . The centerpiece, perhaps, is the soaring “June.” “Strange World” could have been better (“Advertising pays more than a lot/While the teacher’s selling pies in the parking lot.”) “Flow” was one of the Beard’s album-ending epics that is perhaps not as successful as other end-of-album epics like “The Great Nothing” or “Time Has Come” but still satisfies.

Unlike a lot of neo-prog, it’s hard to point to any specific antecedent. They had (and have) a pretty original sound. Their following record, 1999’s Day for Night, featured shorter songs, and the original lineup’s last record Snow was a double album rock opera, after which Neal Morse quit to become a born again Christian. The band soldiered on for a few more albums with drummer Nick D’Virgilio as singer (sound familiar?) and struggled to find a direction, suffering a bit in the songwriting department. Their 10th album, X, was perhaps the most successful post-Morse outing, but D’Virgilio left in 2012 and was replaced on vocals by Ted Leonard of pop-prog band The Enchant, who are/were pretty good. A new album is slated for later in 2012. Morse, meanwhile, has been steadily releasing solo records, which are fantastic musically, but some of them are a bit too “all Jesus, all the time,” which is really monotonous. His best solo album is 2006’s ?.

The Words Are Becoming More Famous

We had the “world premiere” of the staged reading of my play Famous Last Words last night. I deliberately skipped the dress rehearsal Thursday because I kind of wanted to see it “fresh” with an audience. And the cast really delivered. (There were a couple of blown lines, but I suspect I was the only one who would have noticed. And why is “incorporeal” so hard to pronounce? Also, too: Warren ZEE-von. But these are minor nitpicks.) The voiceovers at the beginnings of some of the scenes worked well, and even the Jeff Buckley song toward the end—which I thought would be hopelessly cliched—seemed to have been very effective. Rich Pekins as Death stole the show and while I had my doubts about his interpretation (I was going for something a bit more Aaron Sorkin-y), he did get the laughs, so who am I to complain? Genevieve and Jarred Aldi really threw themselves into the parts of the “wacky” next door neighbors (I cop to throwing in some old 1970s sitcom tropes). And Chad Andrews was perfectly suited for the lead.

There were about 20–25 people in the audience, not bad for Johnstown, and everyone seemed to love it. During the Q&A afterward, several vocal audience members demanded it be given a full production, and the Colonial Little Theatre Board concurred, so that may happen some time next year.

I attempted to videorecord it, but maxxed out the SD card before the end of Act I (2GB doesn’t go as far as you’d think with video...) so I bought a 16GB card and will try again at tonight’s performance.

It was really quite gratifying, and I have made notes of some things that did not work and things I need to fix. Still, tremendous fun.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Certain Songs Part XIV: On the Road to Find Out

And now, thankful that I do not have to emigrate, we forge ahead with my favorite 153 records of all time.

Simon & Garfunkel

As I wrote earlier, I got into S&G in a big way in sophomore year of college when Paul Simon’s Graceland came out, and for years all I had of Bookends was a scratchy used vinyl copy. Still, it and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (see earlier in this list) were the best of the five albums they did (four if you don’t count the debut Wednesday Morning 3 AM, which not many do). Production-wise, Bookends is the most elaborate of their albums, almost—but not quite—getting psychedelic in places (especially the opener “Save the Life of My Child”). “America” is a standout track among a sea of standout tracks—“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/They’ve all come to look for America.” Side one closer “Old Friends” never fails to bring a tear, especially when it follows the audio verité “Voices of Old People” recorded in an old-age home. (Quite a daring thing to do in an age where youth culture was being revered.)

Side Two has a better suite of songs, including “Mrs. Robinson,” the single version which did not actually appear in The Graduate, “A Hazy Shade of Winter” (covered well by The Bangles in the late 1980s), and the seemingly innocent but Animal Farm-ish “At the Zoo.” The duo’s next, and final, album Bridge Over Troubled Water saw them experimenting with new musical styles, and yielded their biggest hit, but Bookends was arguably the better record, and the best of their too-short collaboration.

Cat Stevens
Tea for the Tillerman

I don’t know exactly how or why I got into Cat Stevens (né Steven Georgiou) in 1986 (around the same time as I was rediscovering Simon & Garfunkel), but I did and I really played the hell out of a recording of Tea for the Tillerman I had made from a CD I borrowed from Steven H. (I think he loaned me Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits which was what did it.) Stevens was always searching for something (spiritual, that is), and his spiritual quest informs—but doesn’t dominate—the record. In the middle of a seemingly simple “looking for love in all the wrong places” song (“Hard Headed Woman”) is a critique of materialism:
I know many fine feathered friends
But their friendliness depends on how you do
They know many sure-fired ways
To find out the one who pays
And how you do.
“Wild World” was the big single, and rightly so. “Father and Son” is the perfect summation of every teenage boy’s relationship with his father, presenting both sides with empathy and compassion. The father counsels patience, but the son ends:
All the times that I’ve cried keeping all the things I knew inside
It’s hard, but harder still to ignore it
If they were right I’d agree
But it’s them they know not me
Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go.
“Miles from Nowhere” details more of the search, while “But I Might Die Tonight” rails against conformity and wasting your time doing what others expect you to do—because, you know, you could die tonight. The long-ish “On the Road to Find Out” details more of the search—“There’s so much left to know and I’m on the road to find out.”

But it’s the opening song, “Where Do the Children Play?" that is the highlight. Yes, we have all this technology, and it’s great, but does it get in the way of our lives? The songs and the performances on this album are just flawless, and although Stevens’ follow up Teaser and the Firecat was a bigger hit (and was almost as good and consistent), he never did an album as good as Tea for the Tillerman again before he retired, became Muslim, and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. Unfortunately, his planned return to music in the early 2000s coincided with 9/11.

Blue Öyster Cult
Blue Öyster Cult

In 1981, Fire of Unknown Origin came out and I fell in love with it (see later in this list), and thus set out to amass the BÖC discography. The first three “black-and-white” albums (so dubbed thanks to the cryptic scant-spot-color-only artwork) became my favorites of their original records (save for FoUO), largely because of the eeriness of the production, the cryptic, often surreal lyrics far removed from usual rock’n’roll fare, and just this aura of mystery about them. Producer and manager Sandy Pearlman wrote most of the lyrics, which the band then set to music. Guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser started writing his own songs early on, and debuts here with the tale of a drug deal gone bad, the atmospheric “(Then Came) The Last Days of May.” Slow and kind of bluesy, it was a perfect mid-side track (song sequencing in the days of vinyl was an art) that really highlighted Roeser’s soloing prowess. (Roeser wrote “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” a few years later.) Psychedelic noir with biker boogie overtones is the best way to describe this impressive debut. The vocals were mixed way back, so until the 2001 CD remaster included a lyric sheet, much of the album was a mystery, lyrically (which only added to its mystique).

“Transmaniacon MC” (i.e. “motorcycle club”) is about an insane, perhaps preternatural group of bikers. The wonderfully titled “I’m on the Lamb but I Ain’t No Sheep” tells of a fugitive fleeing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; it was re-recorded for their next album in a harder, faster arrangement and retitled “The Red and the Black,” and as such stayed in their live repertoire well into the 80s. Robert Meltzer, founder of rock magazine Crawdaddy, was also a contributing lyricist (usually more bizarre, surreal stuff) and here contributes the words to “Stairway to the Stars” and “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot” (“Didn’t believe it when he bit into her face/It tasted just like a fallen arch”). Bassist Joe Bouchard also jumped right into songwriting, with “Screams” being a creepy side two opener, replete with treated vocals and burbling synths grounded with an ominous guitar riff. The classic rock radio track was “Cities on Flame with Rock’n’Roll” sung by (vastly underrated) drummer Albert Bouchard, at least on record (sung by official singer Eric Bloom in most live incarnations). Blue Öyster Cult stands perhaps as one of the best rock debut albums of the 1970s. Eventually, they would do more sci-fi-oriented songs, even having science-fiction authors contribute lyrics.

Blue Öyster Cult also earns a place in my personal history as the first concert I ever went to, in September 1982 at the then-brand new Worcester Centrum. (Opening act: Aldo Nova. Ha!)

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Famous Last Words...

Yesterday, I went to the first rehearsal of the forthcoming staged reading of my play Famous Last Words, to be performed next Friday and Saturday, November 9 and 10, at the Colonial Little Theater in Johnstown, NY. The director had been telling me there were some “unconventional” casting choices, and the lead dropped out abruptly and had to be replaced, so I was a tad nervous. But I thought everyone did a great job. It’s always interesting how directors and performers have different interpretations than I had in mind, and I’m curious to see how it all works out in front of an audience. Everyone was rally enthusiastic—and liked the play!—which helps a great deal. Listening to things read back, I hear a few clunky things I should change...

King for Many Days--Four Kings

The rereading Stephen King project continues apace, despite a new Jasper Fforde Thursday Next novel and a new Richard Ford novel.

Roadwork (1980) (as Richard Bachman)
The third of the Bachman books, this has reputedly become one of King's own favorites of his pseudonym’s titles, and I can sympathize.

In some ways, this book helps illustrate the difference between the Americans and the British. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, mild-mannered Brit Arthur Dent wakes to find that his house is to be demolished to make say for a bypass. In response, he lies down in front of the bulldozer, saying “Let’s see who rusts first.” In Roadwork, Maine resident Barton George Dawes challenges the highway department’s intention to extend the interstate highway by buying high-powered guns, vandalizing construction equipment, and wiring his house with explosives. Dawes, a 40-year-old laundry company executive, is being assailed by the highway department on two fronts: they mean to extend the interstate through his house, as well as through the laundry plant. Tasked by his wife and his corporate overlord to find suitable new locations, he defiantly decides not to, which costs him his job and his marriage. Already on the brink of madness (largely stemming from the death of his son from brain cancer a few years earlier), the roadwork tips him over the edge. I could actually sympathize with Dawes; it wasn’t so much the property per se (and the state was giving him good money for it) but the fact that he had memories in the house and was loath to give them up. It really is one man against progress, which is kind of a fool’s errand, but one that one can relate to.

Grade: A-

Cujo (1981)
King’s first real letdown, although I may be alone on this. I did read this back when it first came out in paperback, and wasn’t wild about it then. Reading it again, I now actively hate it. We all know the story: giant friendly St. Bernard is bitten by a rabid bat and goes bad, killing his master and next door neighbor. Cujo’s master happened to be an auto mechanic, so into Cujo’s lap fall Donna Trenton and her four-year-old son Tad, who spend most of the book trapped in Cujo’s driveway in a stalled car. Husband Vic is out of town on business and returns home too late...

According to King himself, Cujo was written in an alcohol-fueled haze, and it kind of shows. First of all, there are no chapter breaks, as if it were a really long short story. And it would have worked better as a short story, since there is very little that actually happens. And there are too many tangents that never pay off—Donna’s affair with a ne’er-do-well furniture stripper and his revenge on Vic when she calls it off; Vic’s dealings with his advertising agency’s biggest client, a cereal company with a PR crisis; and the auto mechanic’s wife’s crisis of family. And there are more. In Salem’s Lot, these diversions worked, because the town and all of the residents played a much larger role in the ultimate plot. In Cujo, really, only five people are attacked by the dog, and they pretty much wander into its lap. And it takes Donna three days of sitting in a car to decide to do something (and it took her three days to spy the baseball bat on the ground outside?) Plus, the tone is far nastier than Salem’s Lot, as if King hated all these people—even the protagonists—with a passion. And the ending—wisely reversed in the not-very-good movie—is even darker than a Bachman ending. There are vague hints of something supernatural with Tad, but not really, and the is some nice writing from the point of view of the dog. And the opening is very effective. But the rest..bleh. Perhaps Cujo could stand as a warning to not drink and write.

Grade: C-

The Running Man (1981) (as Richard Bachman)
First of all, it is best to forget the Schwarzeneggar film, which is the loosest possible adaptation of this Bachman novel. Aside from the most basic premise—the main character is on a game show in which he is to be hunted and killed (and why do I have the sneaking suspicion that that will be the next step in reality TV?)—the book and movie could not be more dissimilar. (The movie, as its own entity, is pretty good from what I recall, although Richard Dawson steals the show. Hmm...I don’t know that that phrase has ever been written before.)

It is a dystopian future America where a wealthy elite control everything and the rest of the population are in thrall to them—wow, that is speculative fiction, isn’t it? Ben Richards, long out of work, has a wife and a sick child. To pay for proper health care, he agrees to go on the top-rated game show The Running Man, where he is pursued by the show’s bounty hunters. If he stays alive for a certain period of time, his family gets a substantial amount of money. In the movie, it’s a more or less controlled set. In the book, he disappears into the United States, where he encounters potential allies, as well as paranoid people who want to turn him in. Like most Bachman books, it has a pretty downbeat ending—and the very different ending from the movie would not fly (as it were) post-9/11—but this was written in the early 1970s and published in 1981. It’s not as good as Roadwork, but at least it’s better than Cujo.

Grade: B+

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger (1982)
For some reason, I had avoided The Dark Tower novels since the first one appeared in 1982, which is weird, because that was my prime King period. Dunno. Anyway, as a result, I know absolutely nothing about the story or the characters, so the first volume raised some questions. Maybe what kept me away was that it is a combination of two genres I am not particularly fond of: fantasy and westerns. And yet, it kind of works (there is also a bit of A Canticle for Lebowitz thrown in, and even a bit of the weird cult film El Topo). It is set in a parallel Earth; some things are the same (people still sing “Hey Jude”), but it is a dystopian universe where the human race has been almost entirely decimated by something, which has yet to be determined. Roland Deschain is a solitary Gunslinger who is pursuing The Man In Black (who turns out not to be Johnny Cash), and has a series of misadventures along the way, including killing the entire population of a town called Tull (cue opening riff of “Aqualung”). There are flashbacks to Roland’s coming of age and the society that vanished, there is weird sex with an oracle/succubus, and there is the sacrifice of the only likable character who was killed in our universe and somehow ended up in Roland’s, talking of weird things like subways, skyscrapers, and his father’s job working for a TV network. There is a confrontation at the end with the Man in Black where Roland learns that his quest is to find the Dark Tower, and the significance of said Tower is all sort of mystical and magical. (When the Tarot cards came out, I knew we were in for some deep deep mumbo jumbo.) At any rate, we don’t get to the tower for another six volumes, so we’ll probably hear about it a few more times.

The Dark Tower, at least how it started off, was designed to be a bit Lord of the Rings-y, and I am not yet 100% sold on the series, but it was a good introduction and I am willing to give it a few more installments.

Grade: B-

Next in the King queue, a collection of four novellas (two of which were made into Oscar-nominated films), a possessed car, a new take on “The Monkey’s Paw” that spawned a lousy screen adaptation but a great Ramones song, and something about a werewolf which I have never read before.